Charles Yerkes

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Charles Tyson Yerkes (June 25, 1837 – December 29, 1905) was an American financier, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He played a major part in developing mass-transit systems in Chicago and London.



Yerkes was born in the Northern Liberties, a district adjacent to Philadelphia, on June 25, 1837. His mother died of puerperal fever when he was five years old and shortly thereafter his father was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying a non-Quaker. After finishing a two-year course at Philadelphia's Central High School, Yerkes began his business career at the age of 17 as a clerk in a local grain brokerage. In 1859, aged 22, he opened his own brokerage firm and joined the Philadelphia stock exchange. By 1865 he had moved into banking and specialized in selling municipal, state, and government bonds. Relying on his bank president father's connections, his political contacts, and his own business skill, Yerkes gained a name for himself in the local financial and social world. He was on the verge of entering Philadelphia society when disaster struck.

While serving as a financial agent for the City of Philadelphia's treasurer Joseph Marcer, Yerkes risked public money in a colossal stock speculation. Unfortunately for Yerkes, this speculation ended calamitously when the Great Chicago Fire sparked a financial panic. Left insolvent and unable to make payment to the City of Philadelphia, Yerkes was convicted of larceny and sentenced to thirty-three months in the dreaded Eastern State Penitentiary, notorious for its system of solitary confinement. Scheming to remain out of prison, he attempted to blackmail two influential Pennsylvania politicians. The plan failed. However, the damaging information on these politicians was eventually made public and political leaders like President Ulysses Grant feared that the revelations might harm their prospects in the upcoming elections. Yerkes was promised a pardon if he would deny the accusations he had made. He agreed to these terms and was released after seven months in the Eastern State Penitentiary. Yerkes spent the next ten years rebuilding his fortune.


In 1881 Yerkes traveled to Fargo in the Dakota Territory in order to obtain a divorce from his wife of over twenty-two years. Later that year, he wedded the 24-year-old Mary Adelaide Moore and moved to Chicago.

He opened a stock and grain brokerage but soon became involved with the city's public transportation system. In 1886, Yerkes and his business partners used a complex financial deal to take over the North Chicago City Railway and then proceeded to follow this with a string of further take-overs until he controlled a majority of the city's street railway systems on the north and west sides. However, he never achieved his ultimate goal—a monopoly of the city's streetcar lines: the South Side's Chicago City Railway remained forever out of his reach. Yerkes was not averse to using bribery and blackmail to obtain his ends.

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